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The Ruins of Mule Canyon

Originally Published in MotorHome Magazine

The American Southwest is a land of intriguing landscape, with distinctive sandstone
arches, unique rock pinnacles, numerous slot canyons and, most fascinating of all,
mysterious ancient ruins. While traveling through southeastern Utah, my husband, Mike, and
I discovered the South Fork of Mule Canyon. Easy to explore, you’ll want to make time to
visit the canyon, which is managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Once the home of
ancient Puebloans (better known as the Anasazi), the canyon contains dwellings that were
occupied from about A.D. 750, though the heaviest concentration of ancient peoples lived
here between A.D. 1000 and 1150. The Anasazi made the southern Colorado Plateau and the
upper Rio Grande drainage their home. The area included what is now southwestern Colorado,
northwestern New Mexico, northeastern Arizona, and southeastern Utah — a region we now
call the “Four Corners.” But the area was different when the Anasazi lived here. Since
then, Euroamericans have suppressed fires, clear-cut forests, redirected water flow and
allowed grazing on grasslands. The land has changed, but the ruins of the Anasazi live on.
Visitors will find two Mule Canyon Ruins, both of which should be visited. The easiest one
to see is just off State Highway 95, about 23 miles west of Blanding, and the other is a
short distance away. Plus, neither is far from a number of other Utah attractions,
including the Natural Bridges National Monument and Valley of the Gods, which should supply
added impetus for visiting the area. These open, roadside ruins offer paved parking. A
paved path encircles some restored ruins, including a tower and a large underground room
called a kiva. The long-abandoned ruins were once covered by wind-blown sediment, which
actually served to protect them from complete destruction. The area was finally excavated
in 1973; a year later, the National Park Service stabilized and reconstructed them, as
necessary. Today, the modern Hopi use the restored kiva for the same purpose as the ancient
Anasazi — as a ceremonial center for religious events. In addition, visitors will see
ancient pit houses, the earliest dwellings of the Anasazi. A block of 12 underground rooms
is thought to have provided shelter and storage for two or three families. The above-ground
dwellings are found nearby. To reach the ruins at the South Fork of Mule Canyon, drive
1/2-mile east on State Highway 95 and then turn north on County Road 263 (Arch Canyon). The
trailhead, and limited parking, is approximately 1/4-mile up the graded road (a $2 day-hike
fee for a backcountry permit is required). From the trailhead, we walked up the juniper-
and pinyon pine-blessed canyon, with an occasional lovely ponderosa pine thrown in for good
measure, and just enjoyed being in the great outdoors. We moseyed up the unmaintained, but
easy-to-follow trail, and were enthralled just knowing that the ruins found here along the
canyon have never been excavated or restored. It was like walking back to a time about 700
years ago when the Anasazi left their belongings and vanished. No one knows why the Anasazi
retreated, but it’s a wonderful gift to be in a place like this and wonder. We found the
first above-ground, or surface ruin, about a mile up the trail. The ruin is on the north
side of the trail and consists of five rooms. We found some of them very well preserved —
the place makes for amazing photographs. The Anasazi eventually moved from pit houses to
the surface dwellings so prominent in the Southwest. These dwellings are usually found
under large alcoves. The overhanging rocks protect the dwellings, thus they are still
visible to today’s visitors. The exploration continued as we proceeded up the canyon. As we
hiked, we thought of the Anasazi and their fine basketry. We imagined dry farming as they
did, raising corn and squash, and how difficult it was for these ancients who hunted with
spears, gathered wild plants such as pinyon nuts, Indian rice grass and sunflower seeds,
and used flat stones and stone mallets (metates and manos) to grind both domesticated and
wild seeds into flour. It was a busy life. As we continued along, we found one or two ruins
for every one of the four miles that we hiked. The trail continued, but we retreated so
we’d have more time to spend at each ruin. We were happy that we’d brought our binoculars
for wildlife viewing, as some of the ruins are partway up steep cliffs and are
inaccessible. The binoculars provided a bird’s-eye view of our surroundings and helped us
to better see and enjoy the magnificent sites. Though the canyon is open all year, spring
and fall are the best times to visit. Summers can be quite hot and winters are often cold.
Because visiting these open ruins is such a special treat, visitors need to be respectful
and leave everything in its place. The ancient sites in this area have been left for
visitors to enjoy and explore, and travelers should heed the old adage, “Take only
pictures, leave only footprints.”

Trail of the Ancients Scenic Byway The “Four Corners” area — the only
point in the United States common to four state corners — is known for its abundance of
outdoor treasures shaped by nature into stark, sometimes surreal tableaus. Some of these,
like Utah’s Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, are among the most visited outdoor
recreation locations in the country — but as the Mule Canyon Ruins intimate, the area is
also home to a wealth of little-known retreats. The ruins are actually part of the Trail of
the Ancients Scenic Byway, a loop through red-rock country in Utah’s southeastern corner.
It includes something for everybody: trails, prehistoric sites, Native American ruins and
traces of westward pioneers. Adhering strictly to the loop — which begins at Blanding
along U.S. Highway 191, then travels south and west to encompass a portion of state
highways 95 and 261 before meeting up with U.S. Highway 163 north and, finally, ending on
U.S. 191 at the town of Bluff — travelers can visit 14 diverse sites. The byway actually
includes 16 numbered locations well worth exploring, but two — Natural Bridges National
Monument, at the end of the State Highway 275 spur, and Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park
— are situated outside the loop. The byway also includes a museum complex, at Edge of the
Cedars State Park in Blanding, that provides excellent exhibits detailing the region’s
earliest settlers and what you’ll see elsewhere on the trail. Otherwise, sites along the
loop are rustic, primitive locations that celebrate nature and man’s attempt to co-exist in
this arid landscape. Ancient Puebloan surface ruins predominate, along with unusual rock
formations and pictograph and petroglyph panels; the rock art at Sand Island is said to
date from 800 to 2,500 years ago. All sites are on or within a short distance of paved
roads, but some — such as the stunning Cave Towers, ancient Puebloan effigies erected on
the high canyon rim at the head of Mule Canyon — require a high-clearance vehicle. One of
the more unusual locations is Goosenecks State Park, where you can view a striking example
of an entrenched river meander. Cut by the San Juan River, the deep (1,500 feet) meander
flows for more than six miles, yet covers only one mile in linear distance. — Bruce

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